Dr. Rebecca Hemphill (right) and patient Deborah Vaughan sit in a Falmouth exam room on Monday, March 20, 2023, where Hemphill uses an artificial intelligence application on her phone which automatically records and produces clinical exam reports. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

FALMOUTH, Maine — Artificial intelligence is gaining popularity with the rise of ChatGPT and Bing. It also is helping save professionals’ time and improving results in health care and other Maine businesses.

A pilot program at MaineHealth is using AI to automatically record conversations between a doctor and patient at a regular checkup or follow-up visit on a smartphone and then transcribe them, choosing the most important information.

That automation can help alleviate burnout by physicians scrambling to get clinical notes into charts at night, and give patients more quality time during office visits, Dr. Daniel Nigrin, chief information officer at MaineHealth, said.

“This saves physicians what we call ‘pajama time,’ when they finish their work after hours, and the patient gets the full attention from the physician and full eye contact,” he said.

That’s important to Deborah Vaughan, a patient who values eye contact when communicating with others. Vaughan has had two visits at which the AI technology was used by her physician, Dr. Rebecca Hemphill of Maine Medical Partners in Falmouth, part of the MaineHealth system.      

“The main thing is she can concentrate more on a patient and not be typing on a keyboard and glancing over,” Vaughan said. “It feels more like my needs are being met. And there’s not as much pressure on the doctor.”

She later checked the AI notes and said they were accurate.

The MaineHealth experiment marks one of the first uses of its kind in the state with AI, which got its start in the 1950s but exploded onto the scene recently with broad use in consumer applications such as the ChatGPT and Bing chatbots. Notably, a New York Times reporter’s two-hour Bing chat left him “deeply unsettled” after the chatbot said “I want to be alive.”

Dr. Rebecca Hemphill holds her phone inside the Falmouth office where she works on Monday, March 20, 2023. An application on her phone automatically records and produces clinical exam reports. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

In Maine, however, AI is being used across industries in broad applications including identifying fish in the Gulf of Maine accurately for sale to consumers and at a bank to safeguard customer data and automate repetitive tasks, according to a recent study by Portland-based Roux Institute of Northeastern University.

Hemphill said the AI technology is proving to be a huge value in health care for patients to feel that their doctor is paying attention to them during a visit. Physicians like herself tend to be less stressed.

“We end up doing what we went into medicine for,” she said.

The four-month pilot project is being run at 25 physicians offices in Portland and southern Maine through April. MaineHealth is still evaluating its cost-effectiveness and accuracy. Hemphill said she could not reveal the price for the AI product, but she is cautiously optimistic it will prove useful and be affordable to the health system.

Providence Health, a national health provider, pays $8,000 to $10,000 per year, per doctor, to license the same AI software, according to news website Protocol.

The AI software, Dragon Ambient Experience or DAX, is made by a Massachusetts-based company called Nuance Communications that is owned by Microsoft. It recognizes words, but goes beyond just transcribing a long conversation to select the most important information. It transcribes that into a note for the patient’s chart, which the patient can then read.

“It understands the principles of what is being discussed, not just the words,” he said.

The DAX system takes the recorded visit and turns around the transcription in about four hours. Nigrin said the patient’s information is secure.

The system still is in early use, so the doctors provide some patient information in advance to help fill in forms, and a human checks the transcription done by the AI, Hemphill said.

She has not had a patient refuse to have the AI technology used during a visit, but said it possibly could happen because not everyone wants to be recorded. Having a recorder in the room also doesn’t fit the workflow of every doctor, she said. But others may find an upside to the discipline of recording the information for the AI technology’s forms.

“You are training the system with your voice and information, and it trains you to be more organized,” she said.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...